What is neuroplasticity? Want to break a habit or change the way you feel about something? Change your brain physically with contemplative exercises and watch your thinking and points of view change. It’s relatively easy when you know how.
Meditate. Several research studies have shown that contemplative practice, such as meditation, can physically transform the structure of your brain and thought patterns. The physical changing of the structure of one’s brain is known as neuroplasticity. In essence, they are saying that “neurons that fire together, wire together.”
The following is dialog excerpted and edited from the Institute of Noetic Sciences’ teleseminar series “Exploring the Noetic Sciences” with neuropsychologist and meditation teacher Rick Hanson, originally posted by the Institute of Noetic Sciences:
Broadly defined, contemplative neuroscience is the study of what happens in the brain when people are doing contemplative practices, how the brain changes with such practices.
Although the word contemplative sounds fancy, everyone has been contemplative – you know, looking up at the stars, going to the ocean and getting a sense of the enormity of it all, or looking into your baby’s eyes and thinking, Holy Moly, how did I get you and how did you get me? All of that is contemplative. In addition to that, all the major religions have formal contemplative practices. But people can engage in contemplative activity without framing it in terms of a relationship with God or something like that.
The contemplative tradition I know best is Buddhism. It’s also the contemplative tradition that has had the greatest crossover with Western science; much of the research on meditators has been on Buddhist meditators. Arguably, though, the majority of research has been on those who practice TM, or Transcendental Meditation, which is nested in the Hindu tradition.
The field of contemplative neuroscience is just exploding, in tandem with the explosion of knowledge about brain science in general. People know twice as much about the brain today than they did in 1990, and I’d have to say science knows a hundred times more today than it did in 1990 about what happens in the brain when people engage in contemplative practices.
I’ll give you a couple of examples. One of the enduring changes in the brain of those who routinely meditate is that the brain becomes thicker. In other words, those who routinely meditate build synapses, synaptic networks, and layers of capillaries (the tiny blood vessels that bring metabolic supplies such as glucose or oxygen to busy regions), which an MRI shows is measurably thicker in two major regions of the brain. One is in the pre-frontal cortex, located right behind the forehead. It’s involved in the executive control of attention – of deliberately paying attention to something. This change makes sense because that’s what you’re doing when you meditate or engage in a contemplative activity. The second brain area that gets bigger is a very important part called the insula. The insula tracks both the interior state of the body and the feelings of other people, which is fundamental to empathy. So, people who routinely tune into their own bodies – through some kind of mindfulness practice – make their insula thicker, which helps them become more self-aware and empathic. This is a good illustration of neuroplasticity, which is the idea that as the mind changes, the brain changes, or as Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb put it,neurons that fire together wire together.
I think of thought as immaterial information that flows through the nervous system. Buddhism teaches that the mind takes the shape of whatever it rests upon – or more exactly, the brain takes the shape of whatever the mind rests upon. So, if you regularly rest your mind on regrets, resentments, quarrels with others, self-reproach – you know, the voice in the back of the head yammering away about what a nobody you really are and if others only knew better, et cetera – if you rest your mind there, it will change your brain in that direction, because neurons that fire together wire together, for better or worse. On the other hand, if you rest your mind on wholesome themes, those things that are going well, what you’re grateful for, good connections you have with others, your good qualities, what you accomplish in a day, the conditions in the world that are okay, you’re going to build up neural substrates and circuits of positivity.
Read the dialogue in it’s entirety here.
To add to the above, other research shows that the brain can rewire its neural pathways in remarkably little time. So to change a habit, meditate or perform some contemplative practice every day for 40 days and your brain will be rewired. You will then find you have a different perspective or point of view regarding the old behavior. Try it.
Has your experience with meditation changed your mind about anything? If it has, we’d like to know!